Three Ways to Reinvent Retail for Men

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To many men, shopping for clothes is like doing your own brain surgery – you’re in no condition to know when you’ve screwed up. Sure, single men must dress up to attract mates. Those poor, unsuspecting women have no clue what fashion nightmares await them. Marriage does to men’s fashion what irritable bowels do to romance. Things get even worse at work. The more casual the office, the more likely we are to see mangled toes and bloated bellies. Even billionaires wear outfits that scream “I sleep in a box.” Of course, it’s the rest of us who need to keep trying. Unfortunately, men’s clothing stores have failed miserably. The shopping experience is hardly painless, especially at department stores. They have the most resources, space, and selection, but they’re packed with men wandering aimlessly like an exiled Judaic tribe.

When I was at MasterCard, I led a project called Total Shopping Solution. Eventually, we commercialized it as two very successful services, Commerce Intelligence and Commerce Coalition. Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about intra-store shopping experiences, especially during all those wasted hours looking for clothes to fit my beefy frame. With today’s technology and some low-tech ingenuity, department stores can reinvent the men’s shopping experience. (After reading this article, I hope they’ll also reimburse me for the the years I’ve lost  trying on ill-fitting pants.)

Men’s Fashion Spiral

As the need for men to haul, lift and lube things disappeared, men have a lot more time to dress up and style their locks. On the Jersey Shore, it could take hours to achieve that carefree masculine look. Most men, however, continue to live in blissful fashion ignorance. They’d much rather watch other men rumble on UFC or play God of War from the safety of their couch. That’s why most men’s shopping follows such a sad, predictable pattern.

men's fashion spiral -

  1. The Rip A man’s shopping spree often starts with some awful moment of clarity. A hole in their last pair of underwear from high school. Or, a pretty girl in line at the airport loses interest when she sees toes protruding from an old sock.
  2. The Sale A sale on pants won’t get flocks of men rioting in the aisles of Macy’s. Brands waste millions promoting thin, effeminate men strutting down runways. They’d do better reminding them that fresh underwear, sexy socks, and stain-free shirts could lead to job promotions.
  3. The Find When they finally go to the store, men want maximum efficiency – everything in their size, in stock, on one shelf. When they arrive at Sears or Bloomingdale’s  they’re faced with inevitable disappointment. They must navigate a labyrinth, forced to make hundreds of decisions about something they only marginally care about. Even then, there’s always the risk they’ll leave with ill-fitting, career-killing outfits.
  4. The wear This is that long journey of deterioration that slowly inches men towards the next rip. During this time, men pick favorites and bury uncomfortable clothes in the darkest corners of their closet.

The Opportunities

There are plenty of basic things I wish department stores would get right. I can envision a future where sales racks don’t make you sift through a mess of shorts, coats, and those weird pants with a sewn-in belt. In that same future, you’ll never have to navigate a dressing room floor covered in pins or overturn piles of clothes to find the XL. Until that day, here are a few big things stores can do.

1. A Better App-titude

The first thing any male shopper wants to know is ‘do you have what I want in my size?’ There are a million ways to deliver that information – all of them better than the way it’s done today – by hunting and trapping a salesperson. A simple smartphone app connected to the store’s inventory system would help. The store could even provide limited Wi-Fi for shoppers to access the app and the company’s mobile site.

It could work like a museum guide app – by directing you to the part of the store that has the items you want. If something you find is unavailable in your size or color, you should be able to scan the tag and have it shipped directly to your home or to the store. The app can be also be a delivery channel for sales, loyalty incentives, and recommendations based on shopping cart items and past purchases. This could also be done (less elegantly) through in-store kiosks or iPads.

One day, using NFC or RFID tags, verified shoppers should be able to unlock security tags with their phones and walk out with their items, without ever talking to a clerk.

Let’s face it, men love gadgets and hate asking for directions. By introducing a little high-tech, stores can simulate the control and self-empowerment men crave after a long day of PowerPointlessness.

2. A Better Fit

Over the years, I’ve had to overcome the trauma of having long monkey arms and a giant neck. If I bought shirts off the rack, they’d look like I should be smuggling dwarves out of Mexico. Instead, I’ve been ordering custom shirts for the past decade. The experience is amazing. You’re handed a binder full of fabric samples. You pick the ones you like, get measured, and wait a month for the UPS truck to arrive. It’s a small miracle. And, it’s not much more expensive than buying off the rack. I’ve paid between $45-$90 per shirt. They last about two years at a cost of 6-12 cents per day – way less than Starbucks.

Casual clothes are a different story. As American men grew larger, attractive casual clothes have remained just out of reach of their pudgy, sauce-stained hands. At 6’2” 220 pounds, everything at H&M or Zara makes me look like The Hulk at a disco – hoping no one gets blinded when those Zara buttons pop off.

Size isn’t the only issue. Other body types are ill-served by mass-market clothes manufacturing. One way to bring some of that lazy, custom tailored magic to department stores is through measurement. There are three parts to this equation:

  1. Measure the inventory Sizes never tell the whole story. Not all mediums or smalls are alike and not all 36-32 pants offer the same level of crotch comfort. That’s where department stores can take the initiative to measure the things they stock for those nuances.
  2. Measure the customer Once customers start using the store’s smartphone app, sales reps can use that extra time to measure their ample bodies. Once the store has your ample dimensions, the rep (or the app) can instantly find the items that fit them perfectly.
  3. Re-size the supply chain Over time, the store will get smarter about inventory management – by stocking more of the sizes and styles that fit their customers perfectly. Similarly, shoppers will love knowing that when they come to the store, they’ll find things that fit. In fact, they might like it so much, they won’t mind being notified when the perfect fit pants show up at the physical (or online) store.To close the loop, department stores can now provide feedback to manufacturers to create clothes with dimensions that fit their customers perfectly. They might even find themselves coming up with an alternative to the small-medium-large pigeonhole.

Over time, this will help larger men find more of what they want – and confidently keep barbecuing. It will also boost online sales since men will feel more certain that their online purchases will fit. Of course, they’ll still want to come back into the store to get re-measured or to tidy up for that big date.

3. Style

Department stores have advantages others don’t. They offer a universe of brands and styles. Unfortunately, they also get big money from brands to create “store within a store” sections. So instead of seeing all jeans or sweaters in your size in one place, you have to make 10 “branded stops”. Great for the brands. Groundhog Day for the tortured male shoppers. Short of saying ‘no’ to piles of cash, there are both simple and advanced ways department stores can help men find the styles they want.

Simple Few men are so attached to Tommy Hilfiger that they’d torture themselves and their gonads to wear his name. Men care about when and where a particular piece of clothing makes sense. There are four occasions that matter:

  • Work – look like you have ambition
  • Casual – wear on weekends while hanging out with friends
  • Formal – attend a fancy dinner at Cipriani or accept your award for retail innovation
  • Semi-formal – wear this on a date

Wouldn’t it be great if every item in the store had a tag that showed when and where to wear each item?

Advanced Some men are more demanding when it comes to style. Department stores can offer them an advanced style matching system that works across all items the store sells. Department stores can get independent stylists, celebrities, and others to create any number of styles that male shoppers can subscribe to. As they shop with their in-store app – or online – they can look through items recommended by that stylist (or in a“style store”). They could also see how that stylist rates any particular item they’re considering.

style selector -

The killer feature would be to rank how well each item you’re considering goes with what you already own – or have in your cart. Over time, this database will create a powerful incentive to keep shopping at the store where your style database resides. Here’s a mock-up of how that might look online:

Of course, stylists should be paid a commission for any sales and repeat business they generate. This would create a powerful, compensated community of influencers who can drive traffic and loyalty to the store.

Stay tuned…

In future posts, I’ll explore the brand’s part of this puzzle. By using hard data on fit, durability and craftsmanship to save millions on ads full of pretty people in pants I’d explode out of.

I’ll also explore the high-tech future of retail. I’ll illustrate how emerging technologies like 3D printers might redefine the fashion shopping experience.

Follow me on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and email to get notified of my upcoming innovation posts.

(This is a repost of Steve Faktor’s original article on Forbes)

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Provocative predictions & prescriptions on where innovation, economics & culture will take us. Fearless. Funny.